Today the 69-year-old visionary still runs her namesake fashion empire, which, in its boldly referential yet elegant rebelliousness, remains attuned to the tremors of pop culture. Therefore, it’s apt that Westwood chose to open her first true flagship store in the United States in the myth factory that is Los Angeles. Late last week, for the opening of the latest Vivienne Westwood boutique on Melrose Avenue, a diverse set of luminaries spanning Dita Von Teese, Anna Kendrick, Malin Akerman, Victoria Hervey, Marilyn Manson, Kristin Davis, Lupe Fiasco, and Christina Hendricks (who’s the face of Westwood’s “Get A Life” Palladium jewelry line) all came out to pay tribute. For the occasion, we spoke to Westwood in an extensive conversation that ranged from current and past pinnacles in her career through issues affecting art, culture and the environment. Throughout, she remained a gloriously chic contradiction – simultaneously political, outspoken, and refined as ever.
On the invitation to your new Los Angeles store’s opening party, you re-styled the Hollywood sign to read “Westwood,” which then erupts out of a torn and frayed Union Jack flag. That’s quite a statement.
Both words end in “wood” – that’s all I can say! That kind of thing amuses me.
So how did you come to open a store in L.A. as your flagship Stateside operation?
It’s really that we’ve had a bit of frustration over the fact that people should be wearing more of our dresses around these red-carpet events. To me, that is why it made sense. Andreas [Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband and the brand’s Creative Director] says it all happened by accident a couple of years ago, when we went to visit Pamela Anderson in her trailer: she was building a house at the time, so she was living in a trailer. We just really liked Los Angeles. My manager [longtime Westwood associate, and ex-lover, Carlo D’Almario] thinks the important thing of being here is that we’re always in Asia anyway. I was very doubtful, but Carlo always says you have to keep expanding because otherwise, you go the other way.
You’re so associated with British fashion; even before you opened the store, however, you’ve consistently been an unlikely L.A. style influence. In addition to Pamela Anderson, Gwen Stefani and Helena Bonham Carter have long championed your work; the look of the early local L.A. punk scene was indebted to you as well. Recently, Helen Mirren and Anne Hathaway both also gained some notoriety for sporting Westwood at this year’s Academy Awards. What’s your personal connection to California?
It’s all related to this being the “Great West” – the land of milk and honey and oranges. When I first came here, I was surprised that almost all the buildings are just one or two stories high, and by how spread out everything was: you can take Sunset Boulevard all the way to the sea, passing all these haciendas as you drive along. To me, this gives the city its character. The place has its history: I associate California with The Grapes of Wrath, and Jane Fonda and Henry Fonda, more than anything. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s not governor anymore, is he? I’m glad he’s gone.
Why did you not choose New York to make your big splash in the America?
I don’t actually like New York. New York people are a bit stuck up and self important, and think that just the fact that they live in New York makes them better than anybody else. Sometimes there, you feel trapped by the concrete, and for me that means being trapped by the myth of Superman and American foreign policy and all these dreadful things that have done so much harm in the world. There’s just so much pressure there; it’s not nice. But I love the Met: they’ve got such an amazing, wonderful collection of Impressionist and Chinese art. I have spent as long as three days in a row just looking at the Met’s Chinese art. I really love that.
It’s interesting that you chose to expand your retail empire when you’ve recently been speaking out against consumerism (“I just tell people, stop buying clothes,” Westwood was quoted after one of her fashion shows in 2010).
I started to express that sentiment through my collections a bit. It’s not in my worst interest to say, “Don’t buy clothes” because I follow that up by saying “Buy less, and choose well.” That’s what I’m about, really. I don’t read magazines. If there were fewer magazines, I might read one or two. You’re just so inundated; therefore, the quality is just such a mess. The people I have the least respect for are the people who open up a new magazine. I think, “Why do you want to do that?”
When you invented punk style in the ‘70s, it had that anti-consumerist element of recycling – of not wasting those things that society deemed worthless and cast off.
Punk was all about the idea of taking whatever and doing it yourself. It was a bit like if a soldier in Vietnam had trophies from the war, whether it’s a dead bird, or a dead person’s hair, or whatever. Punk was about just picking something up and putting things together: the best example probably is when [early punk style tastemaker] Soo Catwoman made a dress out of a black bin liner. I never wanted to shock; it was more like defiance. Seeing my clothes from that time, Andreas said, “If you wore your outfit with the mohair jumper or whatever today, it would look so chic.” It would’ve stood the test of time.
Your former husband and collaborator in the punk movement, Malcolm McLaren, died last year, which drew new interest to your work from that era…
Malcolm’s dead, and I can actually say things I wouldn’t have said if he’d been alive. I have such a loyalty to Malcolm, even though he was so horrible: he was good fun, and he really did get everyone moving. What I was about to say, which I shouldn’t… When Malcolm and I separated, I was pretty bored with him, and didn’t go along with much of what he was doing. I do criticize him because he was clever enough to have been a thinker, but he never wanted to go deep. He needed quick results and success all the time, and just wanted to take what he could; I don’t think he learned much because of that. He was always fast, and there are definitely a lot of people in the fashion world who want to find the latest idea and pretend it’s theirs before anybody else snaps it up. I will say I think there are one or two fashion editors – well, there’s one actually – who does not like me because I’m too fast for her. They like to discover you, and patronize you.
Your recent runway show in Paris for your fall collection this past March was a huge critical success, however.
I was very pleased with this last collection. I’m not always that pleased, but it really took off. Why that happens, I don’t know. The clothes have to somehow be the epitome of themselves, and have a character and story to them. I was so knocked out by all black makeup that [makeup artist] Val Garland did: it went off into a parallel universe with this fucking makeup – to me, that’s the thing that took it away. The show was called “World Wide Woman,” but Andreas saw a picture of a Spanish horse with its hair blowing and got the idea to make the models look like horses. He told Val this, and then she took these black paintbrushes down their faces. It was brilliant.
The makeup in “World Wide Woman” reminded me of Scottish warrior face paint, or Kabuki, which was contrasted with neutral colors, and glitter, and sequins. Some models were also wearing army helmets, which seemed very current. The looks were very wearable, but also made a political statement: it was confrontational and provocative, in a beautiful way, to show sequins and sparkle in our downtrodden times.
I don’t know why we decided on army helmets. It wasn’t for any literary or political thought; I think it’s just that we can put anything together now.
There seemed to be a message, but it wasn’t blunt or didactic.
I can’t help it, but I am a teacher in a way. But now, I don’t automatically say where the references come from. For some reason, there was something clear about the fall collection. The elements were reduced – they had a form; it was very powerful.
One message that has been clear in your collections has been your activism on behalf of the environment. There’s even a Vivienne Westwood water-bottle collaboration with Sigg on sale in your store.
I have two main things in my life: one is fashion, and the other one is climate change – we’re an endangered species, and the problem is global. I’m working more carefully with the idea of what one person can really do for climate change. I had the idea to try and do a television series exploring environmental solutions along with the idea of culture, because nobody wants a program on just climate change at the moment.
How did you come to environmental activism?
I was so upset about the rainforests getting chopped down at an even faster rate than ever before, and I knew climate change was a problem. The financial crisis is an absolute match of the ecological crisis because there’s nothing left to exploit. I met people working from an organization called Cool Earth, and I decided they were the people who were probably most effective; I’m going to try and fundraise for Cool Earth, and give them some money of my own. What they’ve done is very dramatic and impressive: in Peru, all these indigenous people own the land, but they keep getting raped by the people coming in, so Cool Earth gave them infrastructure, including schools and boats and communication. I also talked to Prince Charles because he’s the cleverest on these issues. What Prince Charles has done is great. The President of Guyana – which used to be British Guyana – got in touch with Gordon Brown and asked if he’d like to buy the jungle there, as it’s still virgin territory. Gordon Brown never even replied to him apparently, but Prince Charles stepped in and made a deal between Guyana and Norway; it’s actually not that much money to preserve it. I think it’s just quite amazing that that approach seems to be really effective.
You certainly are more active outside of fashion than many designers. Since 2007, you’ve been developing a project you call “Active Resistance,” which exists as a book, a website, and you’ve actually performed it as well. In its introduction, you write that “our journey will show that art gives culture and that culture is the antidote to propaganda.”
I do readings of “Active Resistance” where I play AR, the main speaker: I’ve done it in Sao Paolo, at The Design Museum in London, The Wallace Collection, and the Royal Shakespeare Company did it for me as well. In this book, this manifesto – it’s probably philosophy, actually – there are twenty characters. Among them are Alice in Wonderland, and Pinnochio, who meets Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, and they’ve now become performance artists that fight all the time and argue with each other. The idea comes from the time of Russian revolution: it’s supposed to have that idea of propaganda, but the feel of also Paris café society and that kind of art movement. What I say right in the beginning is that the 20th century is a mistake. It’s rubbish, this dogma of the 20th century: I don’t believe in progress, except in quality of life. You cannot throw out the baby with the bath water: throw away the past, and you throw away all possibility of comparison, discrimination, ideas, and different points of view. In one part, a character tells off another who wants to be a painter, because to paint requires skill. I got that from these Brit artists, the Chapman Brothers. I assumed that an artist needs skill, and Jake Chapman told me, “That’s very bourgeois.” I responded, “I didn’t think anybody used that term anymore.”
It’s very bourgeois to call someone else bourgeois.
These artists send a piece of cardboard to an iron foundry, and that’s their art. If they’ve made it themselves, it’s not valid anymore. It’s not part of the dogma.
As an innovator of post-modernism, you’ve always brought currents of contemporary art into your fashion designs…
We shouldn’t really necessarily talk about fashion as being art. It’s an applied art, not a pure art: it has to be worn. People have arms and legs, so you can’t just do something that’s “whatever.”
With all these diverse strands in your life and career, what’s next?
I’m going to do my next fashion show – that’s sort of always in the pipeline. I don’t know if the next show will be as good, but it doesn’t really worry me. I don’t mind; I’m just going to try and do my best. I don’t travel unless I have to, but I am going to Africa where I’m working on a project that involves the United Nations helping a community there. We might end up designing a collection based on what we find there because, you know, the African people are so elegant. But I have no idea.
You’ve been designing for over 40 years, yet you haven’t lost the power to shock and surprise. How do you maintain that vital point of view?
It was actually September of 1970 when Malcolm and I started “Let It Rock” – I’m bad with dates, but that I do remember. As for this romantic idea that an artist has all the fire in his youth, and then when they get old they become boring, it’s just not true. I don’t think that’s necessarily the norm at all – look at someone like Matisse. It’s like having a fridge: you’ve got to keep going to market and putting stuff back in. That’s why I came back to this idea of the iconoclast and the 20th century: to smash something doesn’t get you anywhere. You can’t just keep smashing.